President Barack Obama declared Thursday that America broke the jihadist siege of Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, where thousands of civilians were trapped, but said air strikes against the militants will go on.
The UN refugee agency had said tens of thousands of civilians, many of them from the Yazidi religious minority, were at one point trapped on Mount Sinjar by jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) militant group, which has overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria.
“The situation on the mountain has greatly improved and Americans should be very proud of our efforts because the skill and professionalism of our military and the generosity of our people, we broke the (IS) siege of Mount Sinjar,” Obama said in a statement to reporters.
“We helped save many innocent lives. Because of these efforts, we do not expect (there) to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain and it’s unlikely we’re going to need to continue humanitarian air drops on the mountain,” he said.
But Obama added that the air strikes, first launched on August 8, will go on.
“We will continue air strikes to protect our people and facilities in Iraq,” said the president, whose country had cited the risk to the US consulate in Arbil as a reason for the military intervention.
The US sent a military assessment team to Mount Sinjar, while it and other countries have dropped food and water to those stranded on the mountain.
Iraqi helicopters also delivered aid and flew civilians from the mountain to safety.
There were still 4,000 to 5,000 Yazidis on Mount Sinjar late on Thursday though some of them live there and “won’t be necessarily looking to leave,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.
Even once all civilians who want to leave have escaped the mountain, major difficulties will remain.
– ‘From hunger to hunger’ –
Thousands of people have poured across a border bridge into camps in Iraq’s Kurdish region after trekking through neighbouring Syria to find refuge, most with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Some women carried exhausted children, weeping as they reached the relative safety of the camps.
But the relief of reaching relative safety was tempered by the spartan conditions of the camps hurriedly erected by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities.
“We went from hunger in Sinjar to hunger in this camp,” said Khodr Hussein.
As the international outcry over the plight of the Yazidis mounted, Western governments had pledged to step up help for those trapped, and the United Nations declared a Level 3 emergency in Iraq, allowing it to speed up its response.
Various countries are also ramping up their efforts to aid the Kurdish forces battling the militants, who have targeted minority groups in the north, including Yazidis and Christians.
– UN resolution against IS –
On Friday, the UN Security Council is to vote on a resolution aimed at weakening IS by choking off funding and the flow of foreign fighters.
Diplomats in New York told AFP that a text had been agreed by all 15 members of the council after nearly a week of negotiations.
The final text, seen by AFP, demands that IS, rebels from Al-Nusrah front in Syria and other al-Qaeda-linked groups “disarm and disband with immediate effect.”
It “calls on all member states to take national measures to suppress the flow of foreign terrorist fighters” to the extremist groups and threatens to slap sanctions on those involved in recruitment.
Obama, in his remarks on Thursday, also reiterated his call for an inclusive government to be formed and his backing for premier-designate Haidar al-Abadi.
“We are urging Iraqis to come together to turn the tide against (IS) above all by seizing the enormous opportunity of forming a new inclusive government under the leadership of the prime minister-designate,” Obama said.
Abadi, whose nomination was accepted by President Fuad Masum on Monday, has 30 days to build a team that will face the daunting task of defusing sectarian tensions.
The Security Council has expressed backing for Abadi’s nomination, calling it “an important step toward the formation of an inclusive government.”
And the office of Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Wednesday released a July letter in which he called for incumbent Premier Nuri al-Maliki to be replaced.
Maliki has defied growing international pressure to step aside and insisted it would take a federal court ruling for him to quit.
However, international support has poured in for Abadi, most importantly from Tehran and Washington, the two main foreign powerbrokers in Iraq.